At a time of desperate economic scarcity nearing the end of the Russian Civil War, Lenin famously told his cultural commissar Lunacharsky: “You must remember that of all the arts for us the most important is cinema.” This extraordinary pronouncement inaugurated a fabled period of experimental film production in the Soviet Union, but it is also the first of many testaments to the intimate relationship between cinema as a mass-based art form and political revolutions of the twentieth century. In this course, we will critically explore the concept of revolution in relation to a global array of filmic modes and practices, attending specifically to the forms of political representation and the textual embodiment of affect. Students will be exposed to a range of filmic modes and textual practices that have mediated the political idea of revolution at different historical junctures, including such widely celebrated movements as Soviet formalism, Brechtian theater, Surrealism, 60s Counter Cinema, and Third Cinema, as well as transnational experiments in animation, documentary, collaboration, and pedagogy that have received less critical attention.
The entanglement of radical politics and aesthetics provides an overarching framework for our ten seminar sessions, over the course of which we will postulate different answers to the inaugural question: why is cinema, among all the arts, accorded such prominence by the revolutionary imagination? Through readings, screenings and discussions, we will take stock of the historical traffic between revolutionary politics and various cultural avant-gardes, paying close attention to their geopolitical specificities and ideological differences. While films are the primary texts of this course, we will encounter along the way complex philosophical ideas that challenge ingrained habits of perception and received forms of knowledge. With the aid of these critical instruments, we will investigate, among other issues, the role of cinema in the renewal of life promised by a materialist theology, the dialectic of repetition and emergence that structures the temporality of revolutions and the modernist work of art, the compulsive drive to reconstruct revolutions as cinematic events, the association of animation with utopian freedom, and the political antagonisms that prevent the revolutionary project from achieving representational closure. Each class poses a specific set of questions in relation to a historically and geographically localized event. Together, we will seek to understand the construction of revolutions as cinematic events in different parts of the world over the course of the last century, encountering along the way such critical discourses as modernism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, decolonialization, feminist and queer theory.
This course is modeled on an undergraduate class I have taught at Brown. The level of instruction and course materials have been adjusted to meet the needs of advanced high school students, but the overall experience will still reflect a college seminar. Students will be introduced to college-level reading and interpretive practices and exposed to difficult historical and cultural content. They will acquire critical thinking and reading skills, as well as learn to analyze cinematic texts in writing and formulate an individuated argument, all of which are skills that will serve a student well in his/her undergraduate studies.
Finally, the course will give students a nuanced understanding of 20th-century political aesthetics and history, while fostering their sensitivity to cultural differences and embolden them to creatively pursue conceptual and aesthetic strategies that challenge the unspoken norms of mainstream culture, specifically by exposing them to alternative paradigms of political thought, artistic practice, and critical theory.
Prerequisites: No pre-requisites but honor/AP English, World History and/or European History would be helpful to the student.
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